RUSA/MARS 2002 Preconference:
Digital Reference @ Your Library
Atlanta, Friday, June 14, 2002
Sheraton Atlanta (Downtown) / Georgia Rooms 7/8/9
8:00am - 5:00pm

Sponsored by Ex Libris; IBSI LiveAssistance; OCLC; 24/7 Reference; VRD; and RUSA

Program Agenda

Speaker Biographies and Summaries

R. David Lankes

  • R. David Lankes, PhD is Director of the Information Institute of Syracuse (IIS) and an Assistant Professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies. Lankes co-founded the award winning AskERIC project in 1992. AskERIC is an Internet service for educators that offers resources and personal assistant for thousands of teachers a week. Lankes founded the Virtual Reference Desk project that is building a national network of expertise for education. Lankes is also one of the architects of GEM. GEM is a standards-based system for describing and finding educational materials on the Internet.

Sara Weissman

  • Sara Weissman is a Reference Librarian at the Morris County (NJ) Library and has taught reference at Rutgers Library and Information Science. Weissman has been team leader at her library's four year old electronic reference service and in MCL's participation in LC's CDRS project and OCLC's QuestionPoint beta. Morris County also works with Syracuse's Virtual Reference Desk, handling overflow questions. Weissman contributed the training checklist to David Lankes' "Building an AskA Service" and is an occasional columnist for LJ's NetConnect.
Sara Weissman opened the afternoon session by reviewing a number of questions the Morris Co. (N.J.) had received through their digital reference service. She pointed out that they get questions from a worldwide audience and that she considers herself a librarian for whomever asks a question. The audience enjoyed interacting with Sara as she reviewed how questions were answered and asked for suggestions from us as she described her experiences. Some of the advice she gave us, as illustrated by the review of questions she had handled, included:
  • If a question is unclear, don’t “kill” yourself to answer it without engaging the user and finding out more information.
  • Also, clarify questions with users before assuming that a question is inappropriate or unanswerable.
  • With complex questions that have multiple parts, call on colleagues and divide up the work.
  • Answer the “unaffiliated” patron’s with something; but also try to get them back to their ‘home” library, if they are not one of your constituents. But also invite them back if they need more help, in your closing to them.
  • Take into consideration the background of the user (at least what you can discern) when answering a question – for example; make your answers age appropriate.
  • Guard against taking short cuts with virtual reference that would not take in person.
Sara concluded the session by pointing out that there is frequently a great deal you can tell from an e-ref question. The person does not have to be standing in front of you.
Recorder: Rita Smith, University of Tennessee

Bernie Sloan

  • Bernie Sloan is Senior Library Information Systems Consultant, University of Illinois Office for Planning and Budgeting; evaluation consultant, Ready for Reference Project, Alliance Library System; and PhD student, University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He is the author of one of the most popular resources on VR, Digital Reference Services: a Bibliography, available at
Bernie noted his involvement in a variety of digital reference projects in Illinois, his proposed model for librarians in the digital library environment, and his many bibliographies on various aspects of digital reference. Bernie believes that there is a future for digital reference service because many libraries have a critical mass of online users and because large numbers of people are using the Web to look for information. However, he pointed out the popularity of many non-library Web services, for instance He asked if libraries have missed opportunities, noting that the period between 1991 and 2000, when reference questions at libraries decreased by 25%, is roughly the same period when there was explosive growth in the use of the Web. He also questioned where an organization like the Wondir Foundation (, whose purpose is to “bring people with answers and people with questions together,” fits into the digital reference picture? What are Web call center software vendors doing? Their technology is designed to closely track customers—what does that mean for libraries? Will video and audio be the next big thing? Will it be the voice over Internet protocol? Bernie recommended keeping track of what the big call center vendors are doing: For instance, what about the possibility of using their meeting functions for providing bibliographic instruction? He named two vendors, 24/7 Reference and LSSI, who adapted call center technology for library use. Both systems do essentially the same thing and both are responsive to suggestions for changes and upgrades. In summary, Bernie predicted that there is a future for digital reference, probably with audio and video. It will look not much different than it does now, but will be improved.
Recorder: Linda Keiter, Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Presentation Summaries

Lisa Horowitz and Sarah Wentzel: Virtual Reference, Real Staff

The speakers opened by providing background on the MIT Libraries, pointing out that staffing is their biggest issue. They treated their implementation of digital reference as a study in evolution, where weaker services become minimized and stronger more vital services grow. At MIT, the libraries are very distributed and they have five reference desks to staff. In contrast, virtual reference (Ask Us Live ) is centralized and at the beginning they theorized that it might offer opportunities to solve their staffing problems. One of the first queries they posed for themselves was “what if virtual reference was so great that they could close their five reference desks”. MIT librarians sought to make their digital reference experience a problem-solving activity looking for answers to such questions as:
  • Why are we doing this?
  • How can we try this?
  • When is it worthwhile?
  • How can we make it work?
The speakers recommended to those who are beginning to implement digital reference service that they set up an experiment that asks, “What are the problems you are trying to solve?” Follow that by developing an experimental model. Then, evaluate in order to prove or disprove your hypothesis or theory. Ask if your digital reference service is worthwhile by examining your service, your priorities, and your resources.
At MIT they found that use was low, though appreciated by those who did choose to utilize it. Staffing ended up not being integrated into other services and was add on that impacted workloads. At the same time the political reality was a library administration that supported having the service available.
In order for them to make it work they had to evolve by re-configuring services, re-thinking staffing, and re-evaluating their priorities. This began by developing a vision, to use as a guide, of where reference services would be in 5 years.
The speakers concluded by encouraging the audience to ask “what is your break-even point?
Recorder: Rita Smith, University of Tennessee

Kathleen Kern and David Ward: Becoming Elastic: Expanding reference service to include real-time chat

Kathleen Kern began by describing U of I as a large, research library serving 50,000 students, faculty, and staff. They decided to offer their chat service from the reference desk because they could not increase staff, couldn’t move them, and they wanted to have service available all hours the reference desk was open. This arrangement also allows them to distribute across multiple service points. The Undergraduate Library, the Main Library, and the Info Desk staff cover their digital reference service, as well as their face-to-face and telephone reference service. Staffing includes approximately 21 graduate teaching assistants, approximately 10 librarians, and 2 civil service staff. A chart display in their power point slides illustrated their staffing model and the workflow. Whoever is available picks up the digital reference inquiry at one of the three service points. This arrangement works well for them but the speakers noted that every library has to judge what is appropriate for them. The predominant challenge has been learning to juggle handling different modes of contact. At first this was an issue among their librarians but they have gotten used to it over time. In the future for the University of Illinois is a change in software, which will take place in the fall of 2002. This will allow them to extend chat service to other areas such as ILL, government documents, and circulation. They are also engaging in evaluation and assessment activities. Doing this has prompted them to look at all their reference services.

David Ward reviewed the U of I training activities, noting that their staffing of digital reference service included a variety of staffing, experience, and knowledge levels. As a result, they divide training. For instance, the GTA’s require more in-depth training and there is more turnover. The librarians like to have time on their own to examine and practice using the software at their desktops in their offices. Among the activities the University of Illinois trainers employ is a website for staff with information and answers to their questions about the software; introductory sessions followed by much hands-on practice. They also do much follow-up on the job training. One successful strategy is to have a listserv for sharing questions, ideas, reviews, and suggestions for better ways of answering questions. Among their assessment and evaluation techniques are:

  • Manager and peer review of chat transcripts
  • Building a knowledge database
  • Patron survey and e-metrics that can be incorporated into training.
Recorder: Rita Smith, University of Tennessee

Glenda Schaake & Eleanor Sathan: Can a Small Public Library Provide 24/7Reference Service?

Memorial Hall Library is a small independent library, with 11 reference librarians and no branches, located in Andover, Massachusetts. In the Spring of 2000, after reviewing the library literature, Memorial Hall librarians decided that the library should provide its users with 24/7 live reference service and that the software for the service should include co-browsing and pushing pages. The librarians evaluated three software products: Live Person, LSSI, and 24/7 Reference. Their evaluations concluded that:
  • Live Person did not have experience working with libraries and did not provide co-browsing and page pushing;
  • LSSI was based on a library model and had co-browsing and page pushing, but was expensive, not collaborative, and charged extra for 24/7 service;
  • 24/7 Reference was based on a collaborative library model, provided co-browsing, page pushing, 24/7 coverage, subject specialists, a no-cost trial, and clearly wanted the Memorial Hall Library to join with them.
The decision was made to go with 24/7 Reference. The cost of the service, after the free trial period, was $300 /month, including the training of seven librarians. These Memorial Hall librarians provide reference service for the 24/7 Reference collaborative service from 8-10 a.m., EST each weekday morning (these hours provide service for the west coast libraries from 5-7 a.m., PST), with Memorial Hall Library users receiving 24/7 live reference coverage. Memorial Hall librarians view this service as just another way to provide reference. They developed an interim Web page that gives users three choices for remote reference service: chat, telephone, and email. And librarians use email and the telephone to follow up on questions from these various sources when that is appropriate. The Memorial Hall Library affiliation gives 24/7 Reference payment for the service, an East Coast presence, positive feedback about the system, and the opportunity to refer appropriate questions to Massachusetts. The Memorial Hall Library receives from 24/7 Reference a live reference service, a cutting edge Web presence, new skills for their reference librarians, excitement and enthusiasm for the staff, participation in a national collaborative, increased visibility, and increased statistics. The answer to the question posed by the program title, “Can a small public library provide 24/7 reference service?,” is a resounding, “Yes we can and we do!”
Recorder: Linda Keiter, Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Janie B. Silveria: Collaboration on the Menu at the QandACafe.

Janie’s presentation provided an overview of the QandACafe, one of the country’s first multi-type cooperative virtual reference services and the first in Northern California. The QandACafe is comprised of 20 public and two academic libraries. Its funding comes from the Golden Gate Library Network (GGLN) and system library allocations, with staffing and publicity contributed by participating libraries. The GGLN provides governance along with the QandACafe Advisory Board. The QandACafe is managed through the GGLN System Reference Center. The QandACafe Coordinator is in charge of training, scheduling, implementing, and communicating. After months of organization and training, the system went live in February 2001. Gradually public libraries in new cities were added. The two academic libraries from the California State University system first served only public library users and then added their own students. Weekend and holiday coverage was enhanced through collaboration with the Metropolitan California Library System (Los Angeles). An evaluation of questions received indicates that 82% were reference and 12% involved circulation issues. Most questions were answered with Web pages, not databases. Evaluation tools include a pop-up form and a review of transcripts—used primarily for enhanced training. Janie identified and described three specific “issues and challenges:”
  • Privacy Issues—A privacy statement is prominent on the QandQcafe Web page. Patrons have the option of being anonymous. System reports separate patron information from transcripts.
  • Technical Challenges—Involved dealing with issues relating to computers, systems, firewalls, filters, and software in 22 different libraries and 22 different IT departments. The QandACafe uses the LSSI Virtual Reference software.
  • Human Challenges—Important aspects were communications, training and reinforcement, problem patrons, schedule conflicts, and “culture” differences among libraries. One example of culture differences is that, generally, public libraries give answers and academic libraries give guidance.
General issues included lack of visual/verbal cues from users, slow connections and other technical limitations, database licensing/authentication issues, and the lack of awareness of each library’s resources and policies. Future plans for the QandACafe involve collaboration with other groups and specialists, use of virtual reference by the academic libraries for their distance students, enhanced services such as live homework help and and a foreign language capability. The QandACafe Website is available at or
Recorder: Linda Keiter, Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Maureen Morris & Virginia Cole: Coast to Coast Collaboration: Cornell University & University of Washington’s Shared Chat Reference Pilot.

Cornell Librarians were interested in establishing a collaborative chat reference service in order to extend their existing chat reference service hours without allocating additional resources. The University of Washington Libraries seemed to be a good potential partner for a pilot program for three reasons: 1) they were ready to begin a chat service; 2) the two libraries are somewhat similar in size and configuration; and 3) there was a three hour time difference between the two libraries. The important aspects of the collaborative technology were identified as:
  • Extending hours of service
  • The ability to transfer chat sessions and share files
  • A meeting function for instruction
The pilot project was designed to answer these questions:
  • Can a partnership work?
  • What are the technological, training, and staffing requirements?
  • Can librarians at one institution effectively assist students at another institution?
The pilot collaborative chat service has been operational for three months and uses 24/7 Reference software. The service is available for Cornell students from 10 a.m. to midnight, Monday-Thursday, and on Friday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and for UW students, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday-Thursday, and, on Friday, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. The number of questions from each institution was positively related to the size of the institution; more questions came from UW, the larger institution. Directional questions proved to be the most difficult for librarians at the other school to answer. The period of time it took to answer questions was between ten minutes and one hour, with directional questions taking the least amount of time and instructional questions taking the most time. A preliminary analysis of user satisfaction showed that 80% of users were satisfied with the chat service, 6% were dissatisfied and, mostly because of technical problems, it was not possible to categorize the remaining percentage. After three months, it seems clear, that, users did not care that the librarian answering questions was at a different school, although students often figured that out. Other conclusions are that the pilot project has been successful in extending the chat service hours, in providing satisfactory service to users, and in broadening the librarians’ perspective on other possible collaborative services.
Recorder: Linda Keiter, Marriott Library, University of Utah.

Poster Sessions

1. Who Asks What, Where and When: An Analysis of E-mail Reference and Live Chat Reference Questions at Illinois State University

Presenter: Christine Kubiak, Music/Communication Librarian, Illinois State University. Other contributors are Kathe Conley, Head of General Reference and Documents Barbara Feldman, Preservation Librarian, Bruce Stoffel, Reference and Electronic Services Librarian, Toni Tucker, Public Relations Librarian, Sharon Van der Laan, Reference Librarian, and Sarah Williams, Science Librarian. Results are presented from our statistical evaluation and comparison of more than 900 questions asked by users of our e-mail and chat reference services. The poster highlights the templates developed, a glossary of types of questions, a user satisfaction survey and charts detailing hours and days of use.

2. Librarians Learn to Chat: Real-Time Digital Reference at York University Libraries

Presenter: Patti Ryan, Reference Librarian, York University Libraries Are you considering real-time digital reference at your academic library? Want to know what lies ahead? Find out what you need to know about successes and challenges of implementing this service in a large academic library.

3.Digital Reference in Louisiana Academic Libraries: Policies, Practices & Trends

Presenters: Andy Corrigan, Assistant Dean, Collections & Information Services, Tulane University; J B Hill, Head of Reference, Southeastern Louisiana University A survey of academic libraries in Louisiana reports on trends in both traditional and digital reference service, providing insight into digital reference issues such as staffing, policy development, assessment and the migration from e-mail to real-time digital reference services.

4. Going Where the Action Is: Digital Reference Within a Course Delivery Platform

Presenters: Elizabeth Mulherrin, Instructional Services Librarian and Diane Fishman, Assistant Director, Public Services, University of Maryland University College. University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Information and Library Services (ILS) recently launched VLIB 101, a new digital reference service to reach more students directly in the online classroom environment, and over 1200 students have voluntarily enrolled since January 2002. This poster will highlight features of the classroom set up by librarians, including: exercises to help students log in and navigate the library databases; a virtual library handbook with discipline-based subject guides; links to library services and resources, including interactive chat, all available from within an online course delivery platform.

5. Synchronous Digital Reference: Planning and Reality

Presenters: Diane Fishman, Assistant Director, Public Services and Elizabeth Mulherrin, Instructional Services Librarian, University of Maryland University College. Based on their experiences with choosing and using LiveAssistance, University of Maryland University College (UMUC), a major, worldwide distance education provider, shares tips on selecting a synchronous reference service vendor. The poster will rank features offered by vendors in terms of usefulness and cost; highlight questions to ask and issues requiring advance planning; and describe the strengths and weaknesses of synchronous digital reference from the perspectives of management, staff, and users.

6. From Pilot to Permanent: Integrating Chat into Reference Services

Presenters: Alesia McManus, Julie Arnold, and Barbara Nail-Chiwetalu, Science & Technology Services Team, University of Maryland Libraries, College Park, MD Outlines the strategies we used to go from a pilot service based in our Engineering and Physical Sciences Library to a library-wide chat service. Our goal was to recruit more diverse staffing, including librarians and library support staff, to broaden the reference expertise available to our users.
See our site. [Note: Information from the poster session may not be available on the web until after the ALA Annual Conference.]

7. Sorting It Out: A Virtual Reference Pre-Planning Model

Presenters: Valery King, Social Science Reference Librarian & Asst. Prof., Oregon State University and Ruth Vondracek, Head of Reference & Instruction & Asst. Prof., Oregon State University Oregon State University Libraries developed and is testing a broad-based pre-planning model to evaluate local requirements for virtual reference services (VR) and the impact of VR on existing services. Focusing on process, the poster session provides tools that other libraries may find useful for exploring virtual reference options and other types of planning efforts. See our site. [under construction - will be complete by the conference dates]

Please contact the Co-Chairs for further information:
Linda Friend for speakers and posters
Amy Tracy Wells for company sponsorship and demo tables
Denise Bennett or other members of the Preconference Planning Committee for anything else.

This page was created on 5/21/02. Last update: 12/09/02